This Is How We Learn About Death

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Shutterstock

You’ll ask what happened to Mufasa when he’s trampled by the stampede, and you won’t understand what it means when your babysitter tells you he’s gone. You’ll ask her where he went and she’ll tell you it’s a long story and to just watch the movie, but it’s an important detail so you’ll ask again, and she’ll tell you that Mufasa died, like the lady at church who always called you Sugar, whose funeral your mom will take you to. You’ll think it’s so sad, but only because the little girl with the flower headband sitting in the front pew will cry.

And then you’ll be the little girl sitting in a pew at the funeral of your great aunt, the one who seemed unbelievably old your entire life, and you won’t ask as many questions this time because your questions will make them sad, and a few years will pass, then your Nana will get sick and your dad will sit you down to talk about cancer and your mom will listen to messages on the answering machine about white blood cells and bone marrow biopsies. You will buy a new dress and stand next to your cousins and siblings while people you don’t know will hug you with crumpled tissues in their hands, and your mom will make you wear panty hose even though it’s not cold outside, and your uncle will tell you he’s proud of you for being brave. You’ll see your dad cry for the first time in your whole life.

You’ll cry when you open a birthday card with only one name on it, a card signed Love, Papa, and you’ll cry again when you find that card in a shoebox in your closet when you’re packing up to move away from home for the first time. You’ll think about the faces that will be missing from the pictures of the caps and the gowns and the rings and the new houses and the babies and the Christmas trees and the family dinners, the faces missing in all of the firsts. You’ll think about the lasts, the phone call, the hug, playing Heart and Soul in the piano room with the little rocking chair and the time you memorized and recited Joyce Kilmer’s poem “Trees” because it was on your Nana’s refrigerator. You’ll remember standing as tall as you could with your back against the doorway to the kitchen and your uncle telling you to be still as he held a pencil across the top of your head.

You’ll wonder if the little tally marks with your name and respective age written over and over again in cramped handwriting are still on that doorway of the house you haven’t been to in years. You’ll wonder who lives there now, maybe an elderly couple who hang their sheets to dry on the clothesline in the backyard, and you’ll think of that house with flowers drawn in colorful sidewalk chalk on the driveway, with an old Italian man in a newsboy cap who smokes a cigar on the steps of his front porch, because that’s the only way you can remember it without falling apart. TC mark

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